REVIEW OF THOMAS FRANK AND MATT WEILAND, EDS., COMMODIFY YOUR DISSENT: SALVOS FROM THE BAFFLER (NORTON, 1997), AND WILLIAM LUTTRELL, TRANSFORMING COMMUNITIES (FERNWOOD, 1997).
Catholic New Times, 13 September 1998; on the web by permission, August 2003
These are books with attitude, the same attitude apparent in how millions of Canadians behave. The attitude is contempt for the big institutions that define our way of life. They are seen as hopeless, farcical, beyond redemption. It is the attitude summed up in the title of Spider Robinson's regular column in the Globe & Mail: The Crazy Years.
In one of the salvos from The Baffler, Thomas Frank and Keith White put it this way: "We are a generation that finally says NO to your favorite institutions: not only will we not fight for oil, but we don't believe anything that you broadcast, we avoid your malls, we don't care about the free play of signifiers on your cable TV."
Luttrell's attitude is similar: "Capitalist Patriarchy is destroying itself; we don't need to overthrow it. Instead, nurture new life, and new communities, out of the ruin and disarray of the old."
Yet the difference between these books is as stark as their commonality. There are just two types of people, several friends have lately reminded me: those who believe in original sin and those who don't.
The young Chicago intellectuals who publish The Baffler have a keen sense of humanity's sinfulness. No rose-coloured Pelagian glasses here. They are iconoclasts in the tradition of Voltaire, Veblen, or Mencken. They aim to expose the corruption of culture in our "new gilded age," the "age of corporate feudalism."
Introducing this book, Harper's editor Lewis Lapham marvels at the authors' "energy of thought and phrase." He says he has seldom come across a book that "in so short a space says so much about the shambles of what now passes for the American cultural and intellectual enterprise." Well said.
What galls The Baffler authors most is how big business has incorporated dissent into its marketing strategy, so that conformity is sold in the guise of rebellion. Magazines like Details and Wired, pop stars like Madonna and Camille Paglia, film makers like Quentin Tarantino, management gurus like Tom Peters, and the cultural-studies postmodernists who groove on what business culture dishes out, are all chopped up into tiny, funny bits. The New York Times is hoaxed. With no moralizing or clichés, why poor people play lotteries is made clear.
An economist by trade, Louisiana-born Luttrell discovered in Tanzania the goodness, sanity, and joy of relatively self-contained peasant communities. He married a Tanzanian woman. In 1975, they moved with their daughters to Toronto, where he worked for two decades in adult education for GATT-fly, an interchurch agency. When the job ended, he wrote this book.
This gentle, earnest author believes in human perfectibility. He is as free of cynicism as human beings get. Here he weaves together a story of his life, an exposé of the failures of global capitalism, and a sketch of the kind of nurturing, consensus-based community he wants to help midwife.
Two features of Luttrell's vision of the future are especially noteworthy. One is its rootedness in current Canadian examples of community development, its integration with the work of Canadian activists like Brewster Kneen, Joan Kuyek, and Jim Lotz. The other is its priority on mothers and grandmothers, those who are caring for the next generation. Luttrell is a down-to-earth utopian, in touch with the fundamentals of our collective existence, and eager to build a City on a Hill.
If you have an Augustinian sense of human frailty, the propensity of our species to lie, cheat, and steal, the salvos from The Baffler will confirm your worst suspicions and in a backhanded way give you hope. If you think well of our species, impressed by the good people do when they set their minds to it, Transforming Communities will point you in a hopeful direction. On the other hand, if your hopes are pinned on global capitalism, neither book will please you.